What is sedition law? All you need to know about Section 124A
The Supreme Court on May 11 put on hold the colonial-era sedition law and directed the Centre and states to not register any fresh FIR invoking the offence.
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In a historic ruling, the Supreme Court on Wednesday stayed the use of the 152-year-old sedition law. The SC directed the Centre and states to not register any fresh FIRs under sedition charges (Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code) until the law is reviewed.
This is the first time since its inception in the 1860s that the sedition law has been suspended.
We take a look at the history of the controversial law, how it was being misused and what does the SC order mean for those who have been charged with sedition.
WHAT IS SEDITION LAW?
IPC's Section 124A defines sedition as: “Whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the government established by law in India, shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which a fine may be added, or with fine.”
In simple words, what this means is anyone who attempts to create hatred, contempt, or disaffection towards the government can be punished under the sedition law.
The original constitution that was adopted in 1950 did not recognise the sedition law and gave the right to free speech complete protection under fundamental rights. But the first amendment brought in 1951 introduced restrictions that validated the sedition law, reported India Today.
HISTORY OF SEDITION LAW IN INDIA
- The sedition law was brought into force by the colonial British rulers in 1860s.
- In 1890, sedition was included as an offence under section 124A IPC through the Special Act XVII.
- The law has been in controversy since the beginning as it was also used to suppress dissent and imprison freedom fighters. Freedom movement leaders including Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Bal Gangadhar Tilak were booked under the law.
- In a historic judgment in the Kedar Nath case on January 20, 1962, the SC upheld the constitutional validity of the sedition law but also attempted to restrict the scope for its misuse. The order said that mere criticism of the government cannot be labelled sedition unless the words are intended to disturb public peace by violence. Kedar Nath Singh was a member of the Forward Communist Party. At a rally in Bihar in 1953, Singh had essentially said this: “The dogs of the CID are loitering around. We will strike and throw out these Congress goondas,” reported India Today.
- After former PM Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, two persons had raised slogans of “Khalistan Zindabad” and “Raj Karega Khalsa”. The SC in 1995 dismissed the sedition charge saying that “raising some slogans only a couple of times by the two lonesome appellants, which neither evoked any response nor any reaction from anyone in public, cannot attract the provisions of Section 124A."
PEOPLE CHARGED WITH SEDITION
- A 21-year-old Bengaluru-based environment activist, Disha Ravi, was arrested by the Delhi Police on February 14, 2021 for allegedly creating a "toolkit" on the farmers' protests against farm laws.
- In 2016, a group of students from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) had held a poetry session to mark the third anniversary of the hanging of 2001 Parliament attack case convict Afzal Guru. The Delhi Police later charged the students with sedition, reported PTI.
- Journalist Siddique Kappan was arrested by the UP Police while he was on his way to report the rape case of a Dalit woman. According to a PTI report, the FIR against him claimed that he was going to Hathras with the intent "to breach the peace" as part of a "conspiracy".
- Author and activist Arundhati Roy was booked under the sedition law, along with Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani in 2010 for their alleged "anti-India" speech at an event.
These are just a few cases to mention. According to a National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report, a total of 356 cases of sedition were registered and 548 people arrested between 2015 and 2020, out of which only six were convicted.
WHAT DO THE LEGAL EXPERTS SAY?
Many legal experts consider the SC order as historic. "The order is historic. The course-correction is timely," PTI reported senior lawyer Rakesh Dwivedi as saying.
"Recent abuse of Section 124A by various governments in India stresses the need for a relook and narrowly tailored law," he said.
"The 1962 judgement in the Kedar Nath case had corrected the shortcomings of the penal provision, but the police officials did not read the verdict and mechanically lodged the case under the provision after using the definition of the IPC," Supreme Court Bar Association president Vikas Singh said to PTI.
Responding to the SC's decision, Union Minister for Law and Justice Kiren Rijiju said: "We respect each other. The court should respect the government, the legislature… The government also should respect the court. We have a clear demarcation of boundary and that ‘Lakshman Rekha’ should not be crossed by anybody."
WHAT HAPPENS TO PEOPLE CHARGED WITH SEDITION?
The SC order said that those who have already been booked under Section 124A and are in jail could approach courts for appropriate relief and bail.
The order passed by the apex court has the effect of suspending all pending and future cases for the offence of sedition under Section 124A, reported Live Law.
"All pending trials, appeals and proceedings with respect to the charge framed under Section 124A of IPC be kept in abeyance," said the court order.
"It is clear that the Centre agrees that the rigours of Section 124A is not in tune with the current situation and it was intended for the time when the country was under colonial law," the SC bench led by Chief Justice of India NV Ramana said.